While researching my article about the first video game, I naturally stumbled upon the history of gaming consoles. Having played with an Atari 2600 as a kid, I’m a bit familiar with the time before Nintendo and Sega, but not to the point of being considered knowledgeable. So, I wanted to change that a little and went on searching…
What Was the First Gaming Console Ever Made?
The answer is the Magnavox Odyssey, but it was not someone working at Magnavox who developed it in the first place.
In 1966, an engineer named Ralph H. Baer was the head of the Equipment Design Division at military contractor Sanders Associates. There, he envisioned a device that would plug into a television and allow users to play games. The idea didn’t come from anywhere as he had been thinking of incorporating interactive features into television sets for almost 15 years already.
Baer wrote up a proposal for a “game box” that could transmit signals to a television screen, using a television channel, which he referred to as “Channel LP” (short for “let’s play”), to transmit the gaming signals. He also described several game concepts that could be played on this device. However, in 1966, the concept of commercial video games did not yet exist.
To develop his idea further, Baer enlisted the help of a technician named Bob Tremblay. Together, they started working on the “TV Game #1.” By December 1966, they had a prototype capable of displaying and moving a simple line on a television screen. Baer demonstrated this prototype to the director of research and development at Sanders Associates, Herbert Campman, who provided initial funding to turn the project into an official endeavor.
Over the next few months, Baer and his team continued to refine the prototype. In February 1967, a technician named Bill Harrison joined them on the project to further develop the concept. The team’s efforts led to the creation of a more focused version by August 1967, which they affectionately called the “Brown Box” due to the wood-grain stickers on its casing. This prototype showcased improved gameplay features, a significant step forward in the development process.
The team’s goal was to create a console that could be sold to consumers, but they faced challenges in terms of cost and game design. The price target of around $25 proved difficult to achieve without compromising the quality of the product. Additionally, Baer struggled to design engaging and fun games for the system. To address this, Bill Rusch was formally added to the project.
By November, the team had developed several playable games for the console, including a ping-pong game, a chasing game, and a light gun shooter game. They also designed different types of controllers, such as joysticks and a three-dial controller. With the console and its games becoming more advanced, the team sought out potential manufacturers to produce and sell the device. This led them to approach television manufacturers, ultimately leading to a deal with Magnavox, an American electronics company.
From the Brown Box to the Magnavox Odyssey
A team from Magnavox, led by George Kent, worked to refine the “Brown Box” prototype’s design, including the exterior appearance and internal components. The console was developed with simplicity in mind, utilizing discrete components instead of integrated circuits to control costs.
The Odyssey featured a range of games designed by engineers and designers. The addition of plastic overlays, paper money, playing cards, and poker chips enhanced the gameplay experience. Magnavox aimed to make the console a complete entertainment package for consumers.
After negotiations and agreements, the Magnavox Odyssey was officially launched in September 1972. It was met with mixed reactions initially, as consumers struggled to grasp the concept of a video game console. The inclusion of accessories like playing cards and the perception that the console only worked with Magnavox televisions led to confusion among potential buyers.
But the Magnavox Odyssey was only the first step. It introduced a new way to play video games that the Atari 2600, introduced in 1977, popularized.